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Universe

Pixabay photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

While watching the evening news I sat cozied with a quilt to warm my 89-year-old body while sitting on the couch in our cottage at Indiana University’s assisted living community, Meadowood. I took an envelope and calculated what fraction of the known universe I was composed of. 

I began with an approximation of a teaspoon of sugar and estimated it held  about 1023 atoms, using Avogadro’s number as a guide.  I then calculated my body contained 1027 atoms and all of humanity 1036 atoms.  All of humanity could be packed into a cubic mile so that brings it up to 1045 atoms and if we use a formula for the cubic miles of earth that exist it is now 1052 atoms.  If we figured how many earths could fit in the sun this would give us 1056  atoms and if we multiplied that to the number of stars in the Milky Way this brings us to 1064 . The estimated number of galaxies in the universe would give us our final tally of 1073 atoms in the universe.  I am thus one part in 1049  of the totality of the known universe contemplating itself.   

Does this make me feel insignificant? No.  Because I am a tiny bit of the universe capable of contemplating itself. I do so without invoking the supernatural. My contemplation is based on the use of my brain to apply my knowledge of science to make a rough calculation of how much matter I occupy where my sense of self is dependent on a functioning mammalian adult brain using the knowledge won by reason, observation, gathering facts, and using logic and mathematics to make the calculation. Most of the atoms of the universe cannot do this because they are atoms of mostly hydrogen and helium in their suns. 

My estimate is both crude (I am rounding off most measurements) and indeterminate (I don’t know how many atoms per cubic mile of space there is between stars and between galaxies). I also don’t know how much “dark matter” is in the universe and some astronomers consider it to be far greater than the masses of stars and galaxies seen by visible light. 

Also lacking are any supernatural components of the universe (ghosts, souls, gods, and other nonmaterial beings that cannot be seen by most of humanity other than in  dreams or hallucinations).   Unlike dark matter, supernatural things have no detectable mass. 

I can reflect on the atoms I contain and very likely I have at least one atom of every person who has lived on this earth. That is an accomplishment most of the matter of the universe cannot do. My awareness I owe to the inventions of language, writing, printing, and all the trappings of civilization that emerged since humans first emerged as bipedal primates capable of using and making tools for their survival. 

While I feel shame for all the tyrants and evil deeds done by most of the humanity within me, I am proud of those who contributed to the civilizations past and present and that allow me to sit at my computer and prepare this thought for the week.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

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The eclipse has come and gone, and for me it lived up to its advanced billing. It was awesome. I can’t say I was prepared to be awed. In fact, since most “great” shows tend to be overhyped, especially with all the different platforms we now communicate on, from radio and TV to blogs, websites, mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter and the rest, they are over previewed and inevitably a letdown.

Not so last Monday’s eclipse. I happened to be taking a vacation day, and my family was visiting, so there were a number of us getting ready for the event. We weren’t particularly excited about what was predicted to happen. I think curious was a better description. None of us had secured the appropriate glasses in advance but fortunately a good friend put a pair in my hands at the last minute, and that made all the difference.

Without the glasses, we were told not to look at the sun for fear of damaging our retinas. The day dawned pleasantly enough, with blue sky and bright sun but, as the morning wore on, the light breeze that started the day disappeared altogether. We noted that fact because we have a little Hobie Cat that we use to get out on the water, and there wasn’t even enough wind to move that slender craft. As we sat around the patio, there was an air of expectancy around noon, although maybe I was just projecting. We heard no birdsong, saw no squirrels and thought the yard unusually quiet. By then the bright sun had yielded to what seemed like overhanging clouds, but there weren’t low clouds in the sky. By 1:30 p.m., there was perceptibly less light.

By 2:30, one by one we looked up at the sun through the protective glasses, and each of us emitted an involuntary noise. The moon, essentially a black disc, was moving west to east across the lower three-quarters of the sun. We could see it clearly, with no clouds in the way. The feeling was of watching something happening that was profoundly greater than any human activity. In fact, I had a similar sensation when I stood at the top of a mountain in Alaska and looked out over the hundreds of miles of landscape with not a human or a human structure in sight. I felt the utter insignificance of humans in the cosmos.

Just as predicted for the New York region, around 2:40 we saw the maximum area of sun occluded by the moon, and just around that time there was a fierce gust of wind that came from nowhere and shook the surrounding trees, with their lush summer leaves, into a frenzy. It was almost spooky. After a few minutes, the wind diminished and turned into a summer breeze.

We sat in a circle, passing the cardboard glasses from hand to hand, and continued to marvel at the sight of the moon blocking most of the sun. But the surface of the moon did not seem uniformly dense, rather appearing to let patches of light through parts of the disc — or so it appeared to me. Then, as the minutes ticked by and the moon moved off, it was almost with regret that we saw it leave. For those all-too-brief moments, we had witnessed what only the gods can see: the movement of the inner parts of the universe as some sort of well-regulated Swiss watch. It was a stately dance of the planets, predictable for its steps but thrilling on its cosmic scale.

Then it was over and, as one, we rose to take advantage of the newfound breeze and get in some late afternoon sailing. But somehow we weren’t quite the same. Yes, we know the basics: That the Earth revolves around the sun and the moon revolves around the Earth, a kind of merry-go-round within a merry-go-round. But to witness a tiny part of that movement, for even the shortest time, can only be described as leaving us in awe. 

A boy looks through the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Lab during an event meant to examine the birth of the universe July 31. Photo from BNL

By Colm Ashe

Hundreds of North Shore residents gathered at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton July 31 for the last Summer Sunday of the season, a program which offers the public a chance to immerse themselves in the wide range of scientific endeavors that take place at the lab.

The final Summer Sunday’s events focused on a Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. The RHIC is the modern culmination of an age-old inquiry into the origins of the universe and the only operating particle collider in the United States.

The day’s events gave the public a chance to witness the enormity of the project, a size measured not only in square mileage, but also in international collaborators. Thousands of scientists from all over the world, even those on opposite sides of warring nations, have been brought together by this quest to unlock the secrets of matter.

The RHIC re-creates an explosion similar to the one that created the universe. Photo from BNL
The RHIC re-creates an explosion similar to the one that created the universe. Photo from BNL

From the main control room, scientists at BNL send ions spinning around a 2.5-mile circular track and smash them together at a velocity close to the speed of light. When the ions collide, they create a small explosion that lasts for an extremely brief time span—one billionth of one billionth of one one millionth of a second.

During the explosion, scientists get a finite window into the birth of the universe, measuring one billionth of one millionth of a meter across. In order to study this small speck of short-lived matter, the remnants of these collisions are recorded in two detectors, STAR and PHENIX. This data is then examined by some of world’s top minds.

According to Physicist Paul Sorensen, this collision re-creates “the conditions of the early universe” so scientists can “study the force that holds together that matter as well as all of the matter that exists in the visible universe today.”

What is this force that binds the universe together? At the event, renowned physicist and deputy chair of BNL’s physics department Howard Gordon addressed this puzzling question. His lecture provided the audience some background on the history of this quest, as well as an update on the discovery of the elusive particle that started it all—the Higgs boson.

Though theories regarding the Higgs field — a field of energy presumed to give particles their mass — have been around since the 1960s, it took five decades to finally find the Higgs boson. As reported by TBR’s very own Daniel Dunaief, this “God particle” was finally discovered in 2012 at Geneva’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s first ever particle accelerator.

This was the puzzle piece scientists worldwide had been counting on to validate their theory about the origins of matter. According to Gordon, “atoms, therefore life, would not form without the Higgs boson.”

Since this discovery, a vast global network of scientists and centers, including BNL, has been created to sift through the enormous amount of data generated by the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC produces enough data “to fill more than 1,000 one-terabyte hard drives — more than the information in all the world’s libraries,” according to theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss.

After Gordon’s lecture, some of the most promising physicists in the U.S. led guests on a tour of the facilities which process this data, along with an up-close introduction to RHIC, STAR and PHENIX, all of which are undergoing maintenance this summer.